Normally, video games empower the player. Give them a sense of dominance and direction of where to go. What to do. A feeling of control.
Throw that notion out the window.
How about a game where it’s like being tumbled around in a washing machine? You as the character get tossed around in every possible direction with absolutely no way of keeping your view straight. At the mercy of this contraption that you’re trapped inside. Targeted by the random chaos in this small pocket universe.
I was provided a key to try out the demo for Bloober Team’s upcoming game, Observer. Revealed last year during E3, here we had our first look at the game in action.
For those of you who aren’t aware of Bloober Team’s resume, you’re missing out on a mind-bending experience. Founded in 2008 – the studio spent most of its formative years dabbling in different genres such as puzzle, action, and strategy games. It wasn’t until Layers of Fear‘s 2016 release that we saw this deep dive into the topic of psychological horror. Players took on the role of an artist, exploring his memories and reliving his descent into insanity as his family falls apart around him.
So what do we have going here? There’s an introductory narration by the main character of Observer, painting a picture of this strange cyberpunk dystopian future.
The year is 2084.
If they told me what the world would become, I would not have believed them. First, there was the nanophage. A digital plague that swept across the land, killing thousands upon thousands of augmented souls. A heavy cost for meddling with our minds and bodies. Then came the war. The big one. The Great Decimation. The West killed the East. The East killed the West. There were no winners.
Except for CHIRON.
The corporation seized power and forged the Fifth Polish Republic. A crooked empire of blood and ash. There was no one left to oppose them. But still, we endured. And so it goes. The rich get richer, as the poor rot away in their hovels, desperately looking for ways to escape reality.
I am what they fear.
Time to go play Detective. Your job is to investigate a lockdown in a nearby apartment complex.
It seems promising in the fact that there’s potential for a less linear pacing of events. In Layers of Fear the events presented to you unravel at the same rate each playthrough. The sensory experience of when someone gets captivated by a part of the story, or frightened at something on the screen.
Observer has to evolve if Bloober Team wants to hit a grand slam with this new game.
When it comes to how the demo played out, my most prominent gripe has to be it was too short. Plus, I didn’t have a controller so I had to guess what was what when it came to keyboard mapping. It keeps Layers of Fear‘s signature mechanic of taking artistic liberties when the player character navigates an area. Holding down the action button to open doors also makes a return, as well as the up-close zoom when you examine an object. Rotating around and looking at an item from different sides. New to Observer is the Bio Vision and Electromagnetic Vision mechanics. These tools in our detective’s arsenal give him the ability to analyze locations from a different perspective, and come in handy in picking up blood trails or scanning electronic data that’d be normally overlooked.
You approach Apartment 102 the detective doesn’t have much luck getting anything of use from the occupant there. At most, the dweller sounds mildly surprised to hear a cop has finally come down to their part of the neighborhood. Knocking on the door of Apartment 103 greets us with a response from the middle-aged male tenant living there. Telling our detective character he was concerned about the ongoing lockdown – this tenant ends up giving us an actionable lead when it came to suspicious activity in the nearby area. Apparently the couple that lived in the neighboring Apartment 104 had some sort of commotion happen in the past few days. Then we see something new from Bloober Team. Our detective character gets dialogue options when he inquires about the couple further. You can either pick to learn about the man or woman’s backgrounds or inquire to the tenant if this was a domestic violence sort of situation.
During the tail end of your conversation, the tenant makes a passing remark that he swears someone is bringing animals into the apartment complex. Swearing he could hear growling noises during the middle of the night.
Swinging open the door to Apartment 104, our detective walks into a seemingly narrow foyer. At the end of it is an aged wooden desk with junk on it. A lone oscillating fan cycles back and forth on the edge. On the other half of the desk is a computer case. Side of it is open, with the inside guts and components facing the player. Looks like the process of taking it apart happened recently. In front of the detective is an employee ID card. Snagging it for a closer inspection tells us more about this female occupant that the tenant from Apartment 103 informed us on.
The place looks like a dead end. But off to the side of this room was a curtain. Our detective pulls it back revealing a more open space in this particular apartment area. We’re greeted with a bloody mess, with a male victim laying in an oozing pile up against what looks like a hot tub. Rushing down to his side to assist, the detective makes a note of the clinging-to-life condition this victim is in. As we see this man more closely the tattoos on his head and cyber augments attached to the neck comes into focus. We get the chance to ask questions about what went on with another dialogue options menu. Regardless of what you pick, it’s no good. All this helpless man can do for us is cough and try to stay conscious. The detective’s efforts end up being for naught. He can’t even call back to dispatch to try and arrange medical attention. At his wit’s end, the detective swears to the dying man that he’ll get to the bottom of whatever gruesome brutality went on here.
In a state of desperation – our protagonist proposes one last idea. He pulls out a long metallic wire from his right arm. At the end of the line is a hook.
The detective is going to mind-jack his way inside this dying man’s head.
From here on out, the demo takes on a more traditional Layers of Fear format. No longer having access to our detective vision powers of any kind, the player is thrust back into the narrow foyer of Apartment 104. But something is different about it. Something is off. You hear a loud CRASH through the left side window as a TV flies on in from the outside. Then, time seems to reverse itself. The shattered glass returns to its undamaged form once again.
A door (that wasn’t there before) on the right side of the foyer throws us back into the entrance of the complex. Everything is dead quiet. A quiet but firm demonic gibberish can be heard, bellowing out from the direction of Apartment 102. Off to the side stands a portal into some sort of technological hell dimension. As you walk to the front of it the demon voices get louder and a window to an underworld of shadows is before the player. You try and open Apartment 102’s door. No good. You reach for 103’s handle to get a BANG BANG BANG greeting you from the other side. Retracing your steps back to the front door of Apartment 104 hoping to get some answers? No luck. As the door slides open, an unfamiliar corridor reveals itself within. Walking into this place you see a facet dripping a stream of water onto a chair beneath it. It turns off on its own as you step by. A window on the far left of this new room reveals another room on the other side. Suddenly your view is distorted and you can hear strange moaning. When you come to your senses seconds later you find yourself in this room you were just looking into. It’s still in the window, of course. But now you’re also in that room. A nearby television seems to give up on trying to make any sense, and all you can see on the screen is a glitch pattern spewing out.
That familiar sense of being afraid to turn around comes back to me. Layers of Fear had that feeling, and Bloober Team managed to bring that over into their Observer demo here.
Reality bends and your character finds himself at the edge of a pitch-black hallway. A door handle emerges from the ether as you march towards this unknown. On the other side you see a kitchen come into your view. Swing open one of the cabinet doors and stacks of dirty dishes are piled in on the other side. Another, pots and pans. The fridge is empty, but everything else is a grime-laden mess. Stepping out from the far kitchen window, an ominous wooden bridge draws your curiosity… which is EXACTLY when a bird SMACKS into the pane before your eyes.
If you turn around out of reflex at this jump scare, it’d become apparent to you that you’re no longer in a kitchen. At this point you can’t keep it straight where the hell you are. A cliff-side with rows upon rows of windows to your left and right, with a door straight ahead at a section where it looks like reality itself is tearing apart. Running towards it and trying desperately to push this nightmare along, a flock of birds clouds your path.
Running and running still. Trying to no avail to grasp the handle…..
Before you know it you’re back in what looks like one of the rooms you trekked across previously. But the rules of reality are melting. A bucket floats in mid-air, coasting on by your face. A cavalcade of television screens play old police footage in a rapid looping of images. Following the path forward you find yourself in a prison. Turn around, open the door you came in from – BAM a pile-on of floating objects hovers and surrounds you.
Tossing and turning, you stumble your way into the throes of darkness.
Remember the animal noises that guy from Apartment 103 was complaining about? You get to hear this beast for yourself. Roaring deeply, it stomp stomp STOMPS in the distance. You manage to catch a shadow of this creature. THUD. Now you’re back in the beginning area of the apartment complex. Out of the four directions available to you, it’s possible for the player to just wander here for infinity. But this is where the game has a bit of a puzzle. At the very least they’re checking in with you to make sure you’re at least paying attention to your surroundings. To escape, you have to follow the path that the TVs broadcast.
You end up in an interrogation room. Locked inside, you grab a lone spoon sitting on the table. It’s chained up.
And so are you.
The demo ends with you struggling to break free of these chains. That monster sounds like it’s coming your way. You wrestle back and forth and manage to knock the interrogation table back. As it goes to hit the wall, reality crumbles and you’re sucked into a light vortex.
Story-wise Observer has a lot of opportunity thanks to the Cyberpunk backdrop. While there’s a clear return of the “question your senses” caliber that Layers of Fear had, there’s indicators that Bloober Team are reaching further with Observer to make sure this game isn’t simply just a walking simulator.
What I saw shows promise.
Again I need to emphasize this demo wasn’t long at all. You can go from start to finish in ten minutes easily if you know what you’re doing at the beginning. My retelling of the experience only looks wordy because of the sensory overload being thrown at the player in the second half. Acting like a simulation of dreams themselves, the way things unfold around you is both fluid and rapidly susceptible to change at a moment’s notice. All you can do is submit yourself to it and go with the flow.